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Princess Alix of Hesse’s visit to Malta

Princess Alix of Hesse visited Malta in 1890. Little would appear to have been recorded about it, although it is possible to piece together some details of the trip from surviving accounts, biographies by those that personally knew her and from extracts of letters she wrote herself. The following is the result of what I have managed to discover so far about this visit that she made, as part of a mini research project.

The visit took place in the winter of 1890 when Princess Alix was eighteen. She had spent the summer of 1890 in Russia, at the country estate of her brother-in-law, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia – who had married her elder sister, Elisabeth, ‘Ella’ – known as Ilinskoe, in the province of Moscow. On this summer visit, Princess Alix had travelled to Russia from Darmstadt with her father, Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse, her beloved brother, Prince Ernst Ludwig and her eldest sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg. Four years later, Princess Alix would make the long trip to Russia as its future Empress, but travelling this time not to the north but to the warm southerly climate of the Crimea and the bedside of the dying Tsar Alexander III.

The trip to Malta was also made with her father, Grand Duke Ludwig IV, who had taken the young Princess Alix to Malta to visit Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg, where her husband, Prince Louis of Battenberg had a naval command, something which was maintained for many years. Prince Louis was given the authority of the battleship Implacable in Malta in 1901, and the family continued to return there. Prince Louis was created Second-in-Command of the Mediterranean Fleet, in 1907. A photograph of him exists in the Royal Collection, taken in the Grand Studio at Valletta, in 1909. His youngest son, Lord Louis – future Earl Mountbatten of Burma – remembered that one of these naval parties with his father provided the occasion for fancy dress. Both father and son wore costumes gifted to them by Tsar Nicholas II; Prince Louis dressed as an Imperial Falconer, Lord Louis as a Cossack (Mountbatten, Eighty Years in Pictures, 22). At the time of Princess Alix’s visit, Prince Louis was on the torpedo cruiser HMS Scout (Greg King, The Last Empress, 39).

The Battenberg family chose to rent a house in Valletta in South Street at what was formerly known as No. 52 Strada Mezzodi. The house remains little changed today having survived the war damage to the nearby auberge in 1942; it still has its lovely original shutters and a green door with the black painted numbers ‘52’ over the main entrance. There are two floors and four upper windows which open onto the street, with a small pizzeria opposite. The view from the street is next to unchanged from the old snapshot in Earl Mountbatten’s photograph albums, showing him as a young boy outside the house, with his Greek cousins, ‘Dolla’ and Margarita in a Maltese flat cart, saddled and drawn by the pet donkey he owned, called Carolina (Ibid, 25).

The house at No. 52 had formerly been the home of the Prior of Capua and was developed – together with the adjacent building No. 53 which was a town palace – up until the nineteenth century, the site having first been acquired in 1569. The palace at No. 52 was leased to the British Naval authorities in 1821. It eventually became the official residence of the Commander-in-Chief of the British Mediterranean Fleet, a fact which again explains why Prince Louis of Battenberg would have been living in the adjoining house, as Second-in-Command, by 1907. The house was leased to Prince Louis of Battenberg and afterwards to the Strickland and Schembri families in succession. The house at No. 52 Strada Mezzodi was the subject of a watercolour in 1823 by the Danish artist Charles Frederick de Brocktorff (1775-1850) which showed the corner of Strada Zecca and Strada Mezzodi, an artwork which was sold at Bonhams in New Bond Street, London, in 2007, for which I gratefully acknowledge the background of the history of the building and the researches of Mr Ian Bouskill for its catalogue entry.

The house is not far from St Paul’s Pro-Cathedral, which was built between 1839 and 1844 and commissioned by Queen Adelaide, queen consort to William IV and aunt to Princess Alix’s maternal grandmother Queen Victoria. Queen Adelaide had visited Malta in the winter of 1838-39 and had been disappointed to find no church for Anglican worship in Valletta and therefore resolved that one should be built.

Princess Alix of Hesse arrived at the great port of Valletta with her father, the Grand Duke of Hesse by ferry. It was the first time that she had ventured so far south – she would visit Italy in 1893 with her brother, Prince Ernst Ludwig. We must suppose that the lush climate of Malta and the beauty of Valletta would have appeared to Princess Alix’s artistic sensibilities, as Italy certainly would, three years later. Princess Alix’s biographer, Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden wrote in 1928: ‘Princess Alix was greatly feted at Malta. Naval hospitality is well known, and Prince Louis’s brother officers and their wives devised all kinds of excursions and amusements. Admiral Sir Anthony Hoskins, then commander-in-chief, gave many parties…’ (Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life & Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 27). There are references also to polo matches and horse races (King, 39).

Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse was assigned the Scotsman, Lieut. Mark Kerr for the duration of the visit to Malta; Kerr would later become Admiral Mark Kerr and Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Hellenic Naval during the First World War. He served in Sudan the year after the Hesse visit. Nona Kerr was the lady-in-waiting to Princess Louis of Battenberg. Princess Alix fondly called Lieut. Mark Kerr ‘her equerry’ (Ibid) or ‘my Malta aide-de-camp’ (Richard Hough, Louis and Victoria, 166, quoted in King, 39).

The trip seems to have become something of a social whirlwind of parties and receptions, as Buxhoeveden wrote: ‘The number of her dances at the balls beat all records…’ For the shy Hessian princess who had even found the Darmstadt parties overwhelming and shrank as Empress from the circles of the brilliant balls in St. Petersburg, it suggests that she must indeed have genuinely enjoyed the experience, for ‘she was delighted with everyone and everything, and became an enthusiast about all connected with the Navy…’ (Ibid, 28).

It appears that this indeed was the case, as letters from the Tsarina to Tsar Nicholas II during their wartime correspondence for the year 1916, show that she took a keen interest in the developing naval career of her Battenberg nephew, Lord Louis. It will also be remembered that the young Tsarevich Alexei, was often dressed in the fashionable maritime uniform so often worn by children at this time and looked after by his sailor servant, Derevenko. The Tsar and his family loved their magnificent imperial yacht Standart and visited Cowes for Regatta Week in 1909.

During the Malta stay, Princess Alix appears to have attracted the widespread admiration of the many sailors at Valletta (David Duff, Hessian Tapestry, 229). Perhaps significantly, the letters published by Richard Hough between Queen Victoria and Princess Louis of Battenberg detail for the winter of 1890 not Princess Alix’s visit to Malta, but instead of the Queen’s concern about the prospect of any ‘Russian’ marriage for Alix, indicating – correctly – where Alix’s heart truly lay, whatever the admiration she received in Malta. Queen Victoria’s journals do not mention Alix in Malta at all.

Princess Louis of Battenberg journeyed on to Malta in October 1894, after accompanying Princess Alix as far as Warsaw, en route to the Crimea and the deathbed of Tsar Alexander III. Alix wrote later that year, on Christmas Day 1894, just less than a month after her marriage to Tsar Nicholas II, to Princess Louis of Battenberg: ‘Do give Mr Kerr my very best wishes for the New Year and kind messages. Are there still so many snails on the bushes which you used to have to pick off with the little gardener boy? And have you taken Spiridon [a servant] without moustache…’ (Buxhoeveden, 50).

In the same letter, we see that Malta was still on her mind, perhaps because she knows the house now to which her letter will be delivered: ‘I wish I could slip over and peep into your rooms and little garden – how glad I am that I know the dear place, so can picture you to myself there…’ (Ibid).

It was a snapshot in memory of a winter holiday spent in Malta for the Hessian princess who was now Empress of Russia.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.